All content is by Stephen Ashworth, Oxford, UK,
unless attributed to a different signed author.
(1) The personal satellite has arrived!
A new initiative by Zac Manchester, a graduate student in Aerospace Engineering at Cornell University, encourages groups and individuals to launch their own personal satellites into low Earth orbit.
The project is called KickSat, and the satellites are known variously as Sprites or ChipSats. Needless to say, they are quite small, with just a radio, some solar cells and possibly a sensor or two, the size of a couple of postage stamps. The idea is to launch a number of them together into a low orbit from which they decay naturally in a matter of weeks, piggybacking up there on a commercial launch in a 10-cm CubeSat.
The project needed $30,000 to get started, with each single sprite costing the user $300. As of writing, subscriptions add up to almost $53,000, so it is certain to go ahead. The British Interplanetary Society is a major participant, with a number of sprites paid for.
So is this just a gimmick, or could there be more to it than just a new way of “showing off your über-geek credentials”? Certainly, the exercise of tracking one’s own personal satellite and maybe taking one’s own pictures from orbit (on later, more advanced sprites) would stimulate interest both among the general public, and in schools and colleges.
It could also act as a doorway to greater things. One possible development is known as the Watt-Intensity Solar-Propelled sprite (WISP). In low orbit, a solar sail is more effective for generating drag than propulsion, though this means that it could be very useful as a means of deorbiting pieces of space junk. Above about 800 km altitude, though, or from geostationary transfer orbit, solar sail propelled satellites can gain enough energy to move to higher orbits or escape Earth’s gravity altogether. Thus it seems possible for the owner of a very small sprite (mass about 1 gram, cost about $300) or a larger cubesat (mass about 1 kilogram, cost about $300,000) to go out and explore the universe, boldly going where only multi-billion-dollar space agencies have gone before.
The solar sail exploration age began on 21 May 2010 with the launch of a Japanese probe to Venus, which released the Ikaros solar sail satellite into interplanetary space (mass 300 kg, size 20 metres). In January this year, NASA successfully unfurled their own solar sail in low Earth orbit, called NanoSail-D. This was in fact a triple cubesat with a mass of 4 kg and a size of about 3 metres. The Planetary Society have long been trying to get their own solar sail satellite into space, and others are also interested.
I have proposed a project which I think would be a worthwhile application of this technology. It would need to be something on the scale of NanoSail-D, thus cubesat-based, with probably a six-figure price tag, unless it can be made smaller.
My project would be to do something which I believe has never been done before and which nobody is currently planning to do, namely: to manoeuvre a small satellite into an Earth-Moon cycler orbit. This would be an orbit which repeatedly encounters Earth (at perhaps 1000 km altitude) and the Moon (at around 100 km altitude). In my opinion, this trajectory is the key to sustainable and safe Earth-Moon passenger transport (more at item (3) here). Ideally the satellite would carry a small camera for shots of the Earth and Moon, but its main purpose would simply be to demonstrate repeated encounters with minimal course corrections. Clearly, it would require a major ground effort (for a small group of people) to track and control it.
The KickSat project demonstrates that there is considerable interest out there. Might the lunar cycler be something that a consortium of space societies and educational institutions would like to collaborate on?
(2) Olaf Stapledon at the BIS
A one-day meeting “Starmaker: The Philosophy of Olaf Stapledon” will be held on Weds. 23 November at the British Interplanetary Society in London.
William Olaf Stapledon was born in May 1886 near Liverpool. His PhD thesis was the basis of his book A Modern Theory of Ethics. His two crowning achievements were First and Last Men and Starmaker, earning him the praise of writers like Virginia Woolf. The concepts explored in these two books were decades if not centuries ahead of their time. The physicist Freeman Dyson attributes the concept of the “Dyson sphere” to the writings of Stapledon. In 1948 Stapledon came to London at the request of Arthur C. Clarke to deliver a lecture entitled “Interplanetary Man”. Were Stapledon’s writings complete works of fiction, or are there some elements of a future for our species to be found in the pages of his philosophy? The symposium is dedicated to Olaf Stapledon’s writings and philosophy. Submissions of a philosophical nature are invited.
(3) Europe needs a strategy for astronaut spaceflight!
10 October 2011
Dr Thomas Reiter
Director of Human Spaceflight and Operations
European Space Agency / European Space Operations Centre
Dear Dr Reiter,
I enjoyed listening to your lecture at the Royal Aeronautical Society on 19 September, and watching your videos of life aboard the ISS.
In your discussion of future options, you made the points that there was no agreed priority among possible future destinations for astronauts, and that future programmes would require international collaboration beyond ESA’s member states.
The first of these points tells me that ESA does not have a clear strategy for astronaut exploration. The second tells me that ESA accepts that the current regime of high costs for access to space will continue indefinitely.
I would suggest to you that both of these points are bad for Europe, and it should be ESA’s priority to reconsider them.
What should Europe’s long-term strategy for human spaceflight be? In a speech to the International Space Development Conference on 21 May, Jeff Greason, the President of XCOR Aerospace, made it clear that the human settlement of space was the only goal which made sense. I propose that in Europe too, the sustainable expansion of our European-originated civilisation into space must be seen as essential for the long-term growth and ultimate survival of that civilisation. Without the creative outlet offered by new opportunities and natural resources in the rest of the Solar System, society on Earth faces ultimate stagnation, resource exhaustion and decline.
With this long-term goal firmly in mind, the short-term priorities necessary to achieve it fall naturally into place, as follows.
(1) Firstly, the high cost of access to space must be brought down, and the reliability improved, by at least a factor of ten, in order to encourage the growth of mass markets in manned spaceflight. I am sure you already know of the innovative research into reusable spaceplanes being carried out by private initiatives in both Germany (Sänger) and the UK (Skylon and Spacebus) towards this goal. ESA should be supporting these projects at least as vigorously as NASA is supporting, through its COTS and CCDev programmes, the outdated technology of a capsule launched on a throwaway rocket.
(2) Next, our fragile toehold in low Earth orbit must be consolidated. With only a single space station in use, that toehold could be lost at any moment through accidental damage or loss of political support. ESA should be actively encouraging European companies to expand this infrastructure on a commercial basis for research and particularly for space tourism.
(3) Only when low Earth orbit has been brought within the sphere of normal economic operations through sustainable growth should ESA turn its attention to astronaut flights to the Moon. Because of the demand such flights create for refuelling and other infrastructure in space, lunar flights for government research have much in common with the requirements for a commercial solar power satellite industry. ESA needs to give priority to considering the commonalities between these two activities, particularly in view of the widespread doubts about the long-term sustainability of fossil fuels and the technical problems in harnessing nuclear fusion. It should be borne in mind that safe and sustainable power supply for Earth has greater political and social urgency than scientific exploration of the Moon or Mars.
Thus the key concepts which ESA should be emphasising in its planning include drawing up a clear roadmap from government exploration to sustainable economic growth on the basis of that exploration, the spreading of the costs of launch vehicles and other infrastructure between public and private ventures, and development of the resources of space for power supply to Earth and in-space refuelling and infrastructure construction. If each mission is to make sense, the tactical concept of flying that mission must be subordinated to the strategic one of stimulating the growth of a diverse and sustainable extraterrestrial economy.
I hope that these comments will help you to make ESA a leader in the extension of civilisation into the Solar System, rather than simply a spender of public money on maintaining the status quo while it waits for innovation to arrive from elsewhere.
Stephen Ashworth (Mr)
Fellow of the British Interplanetary Society